Thursday, 22 July 2021

Normally Madame

If you haven't much time, here is a summary of this post, from Matt, the Telegraph newspaper’s excellent cartoonist:

If you have time, read on to learn exactly how right that couple are.

A few pretty things in church of no fame in a village few have heard of in Italy, examples of the treasures scattered across Europe that none of us have been able to admire for over a year.

I used to deal with a man in Brussels who, whenever I asked him a question, would invariably preface his answer with the phrase, "Normally, Madame". On occasion, in fact, his answer would consist only of those two words. 

During lockdown I thought of that man quite often, remembering his simple phrase. I wondered when it would regain any meaning in reality and, in darker moments, whether anything would ever go normally again.

Then on 23 June, to my amazement, normality did return - at least it did in Hungary. No masks, no vaccine checkers, everything open to full capacity, no two-metre distances, just the return of common sense. And then, wonder of wonders, the European Union got its act together and set up a Europe-wide vaccination certificate. As soon as we received ours, we packed our bags and headed back into the world. 

At this point, I should pause and give credit to my husband. I am always capable of persuading myself that I may not want what I actually want, that I am misguided and will be disappointed or disturbed if I achieve my goals.  If it weren't for my husband's boundless optimism, energy and general positive can-do approach, we'd probably still be at home. In his un-neurotic wake, I set off, braced for disillusion, convinced I would decide that travel was meaningless and idle self-indulgence and I'd only been wanting to do it because I wasn't allowed.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. 

Being out in the world is invigorating. Seeing strangers is stimulating. Going to new places is exciting and inspiring and a reminder of how wonderful existence is - including the dear old mass of individuals that together make up the human race.

In Austria, the crowded cheerfulness - gemutlichkeit they call it - of a gasthaus in the evening, a plate of schnitzel with a gemischte salat beside it and the cheerful waiter in lederhosen sweeping down with a viertel of gruner veltliner and a bottle of mineral water. 

Waitress in dirndl

Man in lederhosen (not, so far as I know, a waiter, I have to admit)

Laughter and talk and amiability surrounds you, the delight of being together made all the more intense by the unspoken knowledge that a huge truck just smashed through the wall of existence and, although they've patched things back together, who knows when the next one will come crashing in.

Europe's landscapes are so wonderful

Forget that. Get over the trauma and shock, we tell ourselves. We are back in the world again, hurray.

Then Italy, and a succession of crowded agro-turistico inns that our friends who live in the hills above Lake Como introduce us to. 

Again so glorious to be surrounded by people, this time all talking nineteen to the dozen in that beautiful language, which, when heard collectively, sounds like the chatter of a marvellous flock of birds. And the playful expostulations of men in bars down by the lakeside, stories unfolding within the age-old linguistic road map of alternating "allora"s and "peró"s. 

Having once hated crowds, now the excitement of being in company is so great that it is almost like being drunk.
Waiting for the ferry to go from Katerina Island, a lovely swimming spot, to Rovinj in Croatia

And then Croatia and the bellowing that I'd forgotten was the South Slav standard mode of discourse among males over 40. 

Rovinj, Croatia

And everywhere along the way people of all sizes and shapes - Lycra clad outdoor enthusiasts dashing by on high-tech bicycles, optimists carrying surfboards to stretches of water that, at least to an Australian, promise no surf. 

And as I write this, at a motorway service station, a huge bear of a man in shorts and straining tee-shirt sits down at a table near me and is joined by his equally enormous partner, she in flowing rhinestone-trimmed black chiffon. She shrugs a fake Chanel handbag from her shoulder and opens it and draws out a packet of cigarettes. They light up and smoke with the kind of uninhibited pleasure I haven't seen anyone give to that activity in decades. The pair seem so companionable and apparently utterly untroubled by the risk they are putting themselves through thanks to  their "filthy habit" and their huge corpulence. Yes, I know I shouldn't, but I love them very much indeed for ignoring all the world's attempts to panic them. 

They become for this moment my unlikely heroes - and perhaps it is precisely this that makes the authorities so eager to keep us all inside. Travel is subversive - sights like these might infect others with a similar nonchalance, and then our masters would lose all control. 

I don't propose to suddenly start smoking or over-eating, but I do plan to do my very best to remember this couple’s foolish bravado. With them in mind, I’ll encourage myself to wriggle out of the panic-stoking grasp of the doom sayers. Better to live properly, than to cower at home in what, if Laura Dodsworth's State of Fear is to be believed, is largely a manufactured dread.

Wednesday, 21 July 2021

Bathos is a Beautiful Thing

I was in a place called Skofja Loka in Slovenia the other day. I'd been there once before and forgotten about it, which is surprising as it is an immensely pretty little town. I found it especially endearing this time as, when I asked the waiter in the cafe where we had lunch whether it was compulsory to wear a mask, he said, "No", and then when my husband asked whether compulsory mask wearing indoors had been abolished recently, as it has in Austria and Hungary, the waiter said, "Oh, it hasn't been abolished yet; we just think it's stupid so we don't." 

Free thinking, so rare these days, so wonderful.

Anyway, in the central square of Skofja Loka, the Slovene government has set up a number of placards highlighting Slovenian crafts and craftspeople - (or should that be, in modern parlance, "celebrating")?

As I like making things, I was immediately drawn to the placards, (despite the fact that they were really an eyesore, plonked down on a succession of heavy metal poles in a way that interrupted the view of an almost unchanged set of antique buildings with a glimpse of distant meadow beyond). 

Displayed were the photographs and what I suppose might be termed "personal statements" of: a blacksmith; a felter; a bookbinder; a patchwork maker; and quite a few lacemakers. Several of them had some pretty grand claims to make about their activities and the products thereof. 

Then there was this woman, (see picture), who pointed out that those of us who spin our own wool and then knit it are rare beings. The combination of recognising a fellow spinner and knitter and being designated as something that is rare was very exciting to me. I had never thought of either spinning or knitting as occupations that one would do anything other than not admit to practising, yet here was someone willing to admit pride in the activity and also, I then saw, willing to venture a definition of its significance. 

What would it be, what would I discover was the essence of these combined hobbies of mine - hobbies that until now I had thought were essentially embarrassments? 

Would she point to a perceived marriage between the earthy, animal nature of sheep rearing and the uniquely human technological achievement that is knitting, (who first picked up a pair of pointed sticks and began the linking of twine to more twine to make a garment via what we now call knitting, and what inspired them to invent such a complex pastime - two questions that I suppose will never be adequately answered).

Or would she assert that spinning and knitting created an intimate bond between man and the animal world? Or that they led to a deep understanding of the intense energy of the seasons - the shearing in the spring, the spinning in the autumn, the knitting in the winter creating a oneness with the rhythms of time and an awareness of its passing?

I read on, and let out a shout of laughter. The essence of being both spinner and knitter it turned out is "being able to make slippers that warm small and large feet." A statement of great bathos, as are almost all statements involving feet, those absurd (but wonderfully useful) appendages - but also a statement of much greater truth than any of the ones I had dreamt up.


Monday, 12 July 2021

Monarchic Transition

For a long time, I’ve been hoping that, at the end of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, Australia would remain a constitutional monarchy but change from the UK’s Royal Family to that of Denmark, on the grounds that the Crown Princess of Denmark is an Australian citizen - or was before her marriage.

That still left Britain with the problem of having the current UK Queen’s son as King. He and his oldest son have no understanding of their roles and spend masses of time gabbling about “issues” - mental health, the environment, all things green - making themselves unsuitable for the entirely neutral role of monarch (& don’t get me started on the younger one).

But now I have a solution for Britain too: Charles, as a divorced man, cannot any longer be included in the succession, as the job includes being Defender of the Faith (which is to say the church). Thus he is out - and I trust that means that his children are also, since the marriage they are a result of was dissolved, (I suspect in fact this bit is where things get tricky but in that case I would say William must relinquish his rights as he has too clearly declared his politics, having chosen to appear at Davos, for pity’s sake, as well as regularly berating his future subjects on their poor environmental behaviour) . 

My idea is based on an understanding of succession that sees the crown pass to the current queen’s second male heir. Yes, I admit, on the face of it that might appear less than ideal. But remember we live in a time of gender fluidity - in fact, go further; embrace that new state of affairs.

For you see, when it comes to the British monarchy, the doctrine of transgenderism can be supremely restorative. All it takes is for Princess Anne to declare that she identifies as male and is therefore second in line to the throne and all will be well. King Anne will be a hugely capable successor to her mother and Britain will be able to look forward to another decade or two of wise, unpoliticised regal leadership.

Thursday, 8 July 2021

A Passage to Lockdown

A friend sent me this link to a story I’d never heard of by EM Forster. It is set in a world where humanity has surrendered to science and technology and accepted that life is better and safer when lived cut off from other human beings, alone in cells that are well-provisioned with electronic communication and entertainment, taken care of by the Machine. 

It is a world where “people never touched one another - the custom had become obsolete.”

One character makes a break for it and experiences the outdoors, briefly. “I had got back the sense of space and a man cannot rest then,” he tells his mother, once he is back inside, safe under the control of the protective Machine again.

I don’t generally enjoy science fiction of this kind, where no explanation is given for how the usual way of life - as experienced, with minor adjustments, through all of history - has been swept away and replaced with whatever brand of weirdness the writer would have me believe has taken its place. But after the last two years I don't feel so strongly about the need for some kind of back story. I've had to recognise how easily and quickly everything can alter, and how little anyone really seems to mind. 

At a certain point in the story, quite a radical change is made by the Machine. “The development was accepted quietly”, Forster tells us. Once I would have scoffed and insisted to myself that this was poor psychology. Now I know better.

Saturday, 3 July 2021

Relevance Deprivation Syndrome

Probably two or three times a day since Matt Hancock, then UK Secretary of State for Health, resigned, a phrase coined by a former Australian politician has floated into my mind. "Relevance deprivation syndrome" is the phrase, and its coiner was one Gareth Evans, about whom I will tell you nothing, as he is a person best forgotten, (something he discovered after leaving parliament, leading him to come up with the phrase.)

Imagine the unappetising Hancock - before his resignation he was ubiquitous, he had power, he was unignorable. Every minute of his day was busy, (and those that weren't were spent doing things that excited him, as witnessed by the bit of CCTV that caused his downfall.)

Now he wakes up and finds no messages on his telephone, no schedule unrolling before him, no demands and pleadings, no bowings, no scrapes. There's just him and his new lady love and no-one else wanting to speak to him. No driver, no appointments, no one remotely interested in his views or ideas. 

Although I call myself a Christian, I am not a very good one, because what I think, when I think of Mr Hancock and his relevance deprivation syndrome is: ha ha ha ha ha. 

Monday, 28 June 2021

Waugh on Gaudi

It was such a delight to discover while reading an article in a publication called, oddly enough, The Article, that Waugh can be added to the group of two - me and GM Davis - who hold dissident views on the architect whose name is Gaudi. 

For Waugh, according to the article I was reading, believed that Gaudí’s creations: 

“apotheosised all the writhing, bubbling, convoluting, convulsing soul of the Art Nouveau . . .The effect was that of a clumsily iced cake . . . [The walls] were made to look like caves . . . all wildly and irrelevantly curved, as if drawn by a faltering hand . . . He is a great example of what art-for-art’s-sake can become when it is wholly untempered by considerations of tradition or good taste.”

Is this more proof that Waugh was a genius? Surely yes.

Saturday, 26 June 2021

T-Shirts Again

Some people prefer visual to verbal arguments, which is why, as a follow-up to my verbal attack on the rise of the t-shirt as clothing in non-active, non-sports situations, I am putting this visual argument here. I think it makes the point clearly and succinctly:

Friday, 25 June 2021

Holiday Ideas

Some people I know were outraged yesterday that Redonda was left of the UK’s expanded "green" list of countries, (places its citizens can travel to without having to quarantine on their return). Personally, I was more affronted that the island of Saint László didn’t make the cut. 

I first discovered this little known resort thanks to a 1997 piece by brilliant Hungarian journalist Dork Zygotian (aka Dumneazu). I reproduce it here:

Slide away to the Lard Coast

By Dork Zygotian 

It’s vacation time again, and eager travelers are trying to decide where to go this year. Will it be the warm seas and white sand beaches of the Caribbean, or the small hills and windswept plains of Hungary? Ocean breezes or Trabant fumes? Grilled Red Snapper or boiled carp?

Well, now you don’t have to choose between the two! Come on down to the latest tourist find in the Antilles! The tiny Hungarian island of Saint Laszlo awaits you!

Yes! Saint Laszlo is one of the last undiscovered gems of the Caribbean, an island so small and insignificant that even Hungarians had forgotten about this relic of their imperial splendor nestled between the Venezuelan coast and Key West, Florida. Since 1989, however, more and more Saint Laszlonians have been traveling abroad, and more tourists are discovering this Uralic sandbar in Paradise, with its quaint customs, savoury cuisine, and bad telephone system.


Saint Laszlo, an uninhabited island known to the Arawak indians of the Caribbean as “Guaccatuccaijandebrecen” was discovered during the 17th century by Spanish pirates, who used the tiny (one mile wide, four miles long) islet as a base to wash dishes and read the newspaper in between raids on English and french shipping. During the 18th century the island passed from the crown of Spain to the British, and then in quick succession to the French, the Swedish crown, back to the British, then to a Spanish concession, French again, then to the Danes, and then back to the British. The colonial powers imported African slaves via Brazil and Cuba to work on the clam plantations along the coast, but with the collapse of the inland’s aloe vera industry (shampoo having not yet been invented) the island lapsed into an economic depression and tropical torpor. During the Napoleanic wars, however, the local British commissioner for the island hosted a delegation from the Hapsburg crown, and the island was lost in a game of poker to Count Laszlo Turoczy de Lakotelep, a Hungarian nobleman. The Count was a great supporter of Hungarian independence, and as soon as the Hapsburg delegation had left the island, Count de Lakotelep hoisted the flag of the Hungarian crown, poured himself a stiff rum punch, emancipated the island’s population, and went fishing.

Spurred by postcards sent home by the illustrious Count, other Hungarians were eager to emigrate to this minute outpost of Hungary in the colonial Caribbean. The first shipload of fourteen arrived in 1817, with a couple more a few years later. After an influx of refugees following the 1848 Hungarian Revolution, the Count felt the island had gotten too crowded and stopped sending postcards. The economy of Saint Laszlo underwent sweeping changes with the collapse of the plantation system. A visitor from Trinidad wrote in the 1850s “Today I paid a courtesy visit to the Count’s aloe holdings in the parish of New Pesht, but as the labourers were far more interested in the drinking of their coffee and the reading of their newspapers, nothing could get done.” Energy was diverted from agriculture to bureaucracy, and soon Saint Laszlo was exporting rubber stamps and countless carbon copies of pointless documents to other islands.

During the negotiations leading to the historic 1867 compromise between the Hapsburg crown and the Hungarian Parliament, the colonial compact defining Saint Laszlo’s status was unfortunately lost in a stack of papers at a coffeehouse after one too many brandies, and Hungarian possession of the island was simply forgotten. Except for a few family contacts and a trickle of immigration, Saint Laszlo was to spend the next century in rum and palinka soaked obscurity.

After 1989, however, the island’s economy was on the verge of collapse, and increasing numbers of Saint Laszlonians chose to emigrate to London and New York, where increasingly met with other Hungarians. Saint Laszlonians are renowned for their skill as taxi drivers, and upon hearing Hungarian spoken in their cabs, they would respond in the native Saint Laszlonian patois, a rich mixture of Hungarian and Caribbean English and Haitian creole. This often resulted in better tips, and increasing numbers of Saint Laszlonians began taking their vacations at Lake Balaton. Today ties between the island and the Hungarian motherland are growing, although true to the scale of Saint Laszlo, in very small amounts.

In an effort to get Soros money for a women’s center and kick start a tourist industry, Saint Laszlo today celebrates its Pannonian heritage and is open to all who seek their own Uralic place in the sun!


Getting there. Difficult. Saint Laszlo’s harbor town, Portopotti can be reached by regular kayak, canoe, and rowboat service from Jamaica, Barbados, the Dominican Republic, and someplace off the coast of Panama (ask for Carlos). Air Saint Laszlo and Malev have recently agreed to provide regular service with a new fleet of ultralight aircraft and paragliders from their new hub air-service in Des Moines.


Flat, surrounded by water. On the north coast, Mt. Langos (7 meters) towers above the Hajdu National Mangrove Swamp Park, and expeditions can be arranged the nearby village of Old Laci. Be sure to visit the picturesque Puszta stretching for several meters south on the western peninsula. Take the cure at the famed medicinal baths in East Furdo, famous for treatment for arterial sclerosis, agita, and sunburn.


2, 043 (maybe 2,044 by now.) The Saint Laszlonians are a creole mix descended from Africans, Hungarians, and a boatload of rather friendly Argentinean traveling actresses, who were actually French, who arrived in 1934 and never left.


Gross national product in 1996 was USD$ 874.32. The local currency is the Pingo, which trades at SLP 2,987,560.54 to the US dollar, and is depreciated each Thursday at four pm. Bring lots of brightly colored baseball caps for cab drivers! The main industries are taxi driving, politics, drinking coffee, clam gathering, lard patty manufacture, and tourism.


 The 2,043 residents of Saint Laszlo have a lively political life represented by 432 political parties, 89 non-governmental caucuses, 650 NGOs, and three all-night bars. The ruling coalition, the LLLU (Liberal Laci Litigation Union) has ruled since 1908.


Catholic 45%, Calvinist 45%, Jewish 5%, followers of Afa, the local Afro-Caribbean-Hungarian religion, 100%.


Laci Panzio, in the capitol (three beds, also a comfy chair in the TV room, swimming pool, sauna, pig-killing shed. Tel. (965-1) 4) Also the Forum Hotel, Chickentown, offers excellent accommodation on Jozsefvaros Bay (4 beds, 2 comfy chairs, conference center, swimming pool, toilet, ice box. Tel. (965-2) 3)


Laszlonian cuisine combines rich Hungarian cooking traditions with fresh, local Caribbean ingredients. The cuisine is unique in the tropics in the predominance of heavy, starchy foods cooked in lard and smothered in sour cream. Try the local specialty, Conch Gulyas, traditionally cooked outdoors by clam gatherers known as “klamos”. Delicate Caribbean fish such as snapper and kingfish are boiled into the paprika flavored stew called “Halasz pot”. Goat lecso, tripe ‘n’ yam, creamed “kids and livvies”, and stuffed cabbage made with jungle snails appear on all menus. Pork is the favored meat of the islanders, and has led to a wide array of island specialties including lard soup, lard fritters, lard balls, lard ‘n’ yam, lard flowers, lard surprise, “fat ‘n’ lardy”, lard croquettes, lard patties, lardos and the more delicate, almost feathery larditas, the perfect end to a Saint Laszlonian meal. Coconut strudel, mango pastry, and passion fruit fried in lard and topped with bacon are available on almost every street corner on both of the streets. Wash your meal down with some light and fruity Mango Tokaj wine, or a North Coast Bikaver, reputed to be among the best of south Caribbean red wines! The local tipple is palinka, a form of rum made from beach plums, which is available in both three and five liter bottles.


The majority of the population are members of one or another sect of the Afro-Hungarian religion called Afa. Afa is a traditional syncretic belief system which combines features of Afro-Caribbean world view with a more pessimistic central-european outlook on fate, and is enriched by a mythical obsession with the poetry of Endre Ady and re-runs of the TV series Dallas. “Afa will get you!” goes the folk saying, “Nothing is stronger than Afa!”. The earthly representation of Afa is the spirit Apeh, pervasive and nosey, which demands that each and every transaction made be consecrated to the Gods of Afa with a slip of paper representing some form of sacrifice. Descendants of various African and Hungarian families often maintain separate cult houses in which to worship Afa and Apeh, and a visit to the Afa cult shrine in the Yoruba-Paloc village of East Nograd at carnival time is not to be missed. The priests of Apeh stalk the village homes looking for sacrificial hard currency transactions, while the local people, dressed in fantastic creole-hussar costumes, parade through the streets to the accompaniment of drums and cimbaloms singing the ancient cult songs in the local creole, such as “Apeh! Apeh! Menya franzba! Menya franzba! Afa! Afa! Penzunk mar neench! Tunj mar ell!” (Prof. Hilton Kayeftee, of the University of Saint Laszlo, gives a translation of this song as ‘God of Greed, go to France! God of Sacrifice, we’re broke, eat tuna!”) At the height of the festivities, the main square of Saint Laszlo is crowded with carnival dancers doing the national dance of the island, the “Szamla” to the sound of booming drums and the ever-present cimbaloms, waving hundreds of colorful little pieces of paper (the “szamla” from which the dance gets its name) and spitting in the street. The evening ends with the parking of hundreds of little cars on the sidewalk to the raucous singing of the creole song “Trabby, trabby, ohhh! Budosh, budosh trabby, ohhh!”


Saint Laszlonians are particularly proud of their local poets, and no visitor should leave without picking up an anthology or fourteen of their work. Zoltan Banana is one of the younger generation, and his “Hymn” exhibits the creole synthesis that defines Saint Laszlonian verse: “I want to jump off / the bridge of freedom / the dark hours close in on me / the noose tightens / but then I think / I’ll just smoke something and drink a rum-palinka / daylight dawns anew!”. James Turofej’s work shows the deep tradition of Laszlonian creole language and folklore in his community, Csongrad Cliffs, such as in the poem “Taxi Man” : “Born between de Tisza and Trinidad / Gleaming fields of coconut an’ poppy / I drive me taxi / and pay it all to Apeh / life cyaan go on / mebbe me jump offa bridge”. The use of bridge symbolism is significant - there are no bridges in Saint Laszlo!



Saint Laszlo Dept. Of Tourism 
Darvas Lili Road 2 
Csongrad Cliffs 
Saint Laszlo 

Thursday, 24 June 2021

Unremarkable Reminders

It is more than twenty years since, surprisingly unexpectedly even for those who’d spent their lives studying the Soviet bloc, the terrible old structure suddenly collapsed. The countries that struggled out from under the rubble have mostly gone on to embrace the bright new futures that awaited them.

Thank goodness. How joyous. I hated everything about those old days.

All the same, when I see some small relic of that former reality, I relish it. Not because I’m nostalgic, not out of any sense of regret, but because they are tiny reminders embodying the utter trashiness of that old world. As the years go by & the sheer awfulness of Communism as practised in Eastern Europe is remembered by fewer & fewer who actually experienced it, I think the unnoticed relics of the former ghastliness become more & more important to preserve.

Here are some examples I saw today - imagine a whole world of such battered rustiness & flimsy quality. East of Austria, that was the deprived world of every European country from shortly after World War Two until 1989:

Tuesday, 22 June 2021

From Plastic Bags to Patriarchy

Since I was 14 or 15, (that is, since a very long time), I have been conscious of the need to use little or no plastic; waste no food; walk whenever possible, or use public transport; locally source to reduce pollution; and so forth and so on.

I was surprised then some years ago when a bunch of people burst onto the scene, (most of them, strangely, accompanied at all times by disposable plastic bottles of water, [a brand-new must-have back then]), haranguing the rest of us not about pollution but about what was at first called global warming but then, when it became clear that not all weather is hot weather, was given a brand makeover and renamed climate change.

I remained aghast at the way cars seemed to be taking over the landscape, China seemed to be a giant smogbound nature destroyer (as was the Soviet Union and its satellites before it [exhibit a: the Aral Sea*]), but something niggled at me about those who exhorted us to tackle climate change, rather than pollution. 

At last when I read a statement put out in November 2019 by that strange media creation Greta Thunberg, along with a couple of her less well-known colleagues, I understood where my concern about the movement rested. This was the passage that made things clear for me:

“The climate crisis is not just about the environment. It is a crisis of human rights, of justice, and of political will. Colonial, racist, and patriarchal systems of oppression have created and fuelled it. We need to dismantle them all. Our political leaders can no longer shirk their responsibilities.”

The advocates of climate change believe capitalism is the problem, when in fact the majority of the very worst examples of pollution have been created by totalitarian governments. Dismantling our systems, while leaving China to merrily wreak havoc on the air, the rivers and the land, is a certain way to destroy everything that is good on this planet. 

* Here is AA Gill's essay on the Aral Sea, from July 2000 - it is a marvellous piece of writing (whenever I read it I wonder what became of Gary); if you want more, it comes from AA Gill is Away, ISBN 978-0-7538-1681-3, Weidenfeld and Nicolson:

"The Aral Sea, July 2000 

The man behind the desk has a bandaged ear. Perhaps a previous guest let him keep the rest of his head as a tip. He holds my passport and press accreditation as if they are fortune cookies containing death threats. He licks his fingers, then his lips, then the ballpoint and begins very slowly copying out the letters and numbers in triplicate on three ancient, moth-winged ledgers. He has no idea what he is writing, it's all English to him, awkward for his Cyrillic-conditioned fingers. 

Finally, he writes US$40 on a scrap of paper and rubs his thumb and forefinger together. Forty dollars. That's more than a month's wages for a middle-class man here - if they had anything as outré and modern as a middle class. He hands me a receipt on a square of brown lavatory paper, which is useful because it's the only lavatory paper in the place. This is only a hotel because they charge you $40 to stay. There's no furniture and no soap. The water comes in a prostated, rusty dribble. The bath has been used to interrogate sheep. The towel is a bar mat. There's a blanket, a chipped tin teapot and a carpet that looks like tar applied with a comb. All night, lost herdsmen bang on my door and stare as if they've seen the ghost of tsars past. Welcome to Nukus, rhymes with mucus, twinned with nowhere. Nukus, no mates. 

Nukus is the capital of Kara-Kalpakstan. Don't pretend you've heard of it, a semi-autonomous republic in the far west of Uzbekistan. One of the "stans", shires of the former Soviet Union. A vast area of vast land. Desert, mountain, broken promises and wrecked grand plans once known collectively as Turkistan or where-thehell's-that-stan. Now cut into five post-meltdown new countries - Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan - which stretch from the Caspian Sea in the west over Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Tien Shan mountains of China to Mongolia. This was the Russians' back yard, not open to the public - - a place to dump rubbish, people, embarrassments and five-year plans. Up there somewhere in the desert is Star City and the space programme. Also the glowing half-life of above-ground nuclear test sites and their collateral seeping, cancerous waste.  But right here is the big one - the stans' main claim to an entry in the Guinness Book of Records. The Kara-Kalpaks can boast the Biggest Ecological Disaster in the World, Ever. Nothing else, no smoking rainforest, no solitary carnivore, no home-county ring road, comes close to the majesty of this disaster. Not just the biggest, but the fastest. Organised and executed with the precipitate callousness, greed and sheer eye-bulging stupidity that only hands-on communism can muster. They've managed to drain the Aral Sea, the fourth biggest inland lump of water on the globe, and they've done it in 20 years. The southern Aral was created and maintained by the Oxus river (now known as the Amu Darya), which rises in the frozen attic of the Pamir mountains and meanders across grassland in search of a coast, finally giving up and creating its own terminus. The Oxus is/was one of the great rivers - the ancient Persians thought it the greatest. Along its banks the towns of the silk route flourished. The orchards and spice gardens, the mulberry trees and roses of Samarkand and Bukhara and Khiva. 

Cotton has always been grown here, mixed with silk into a bright material that made Bukhara famous. Then in 1861, across the Pacific, something apparently utterly unconnected with central Asia caused the flutter of chiffon that grew into a wind that became a dust storm that changed everything: the American civil war. Russia was one of the few supporters of the South (we were another), Russia bought its cotton from the South - to make up the deficit they increased production in the stans. When the communists took over, they decided to bury capitalism in a generation, and turned the whole of this vast area into a monocrop culture of the stuff. In 1932, they started the Fergana valley canal, one of the huge, murderous, wasteful engineering achievements of Stalinism. It was only the beginning. Soon the apparently inexhaustible Oxus was gashed and slashed with thousands of miles of arbitrary irrigation, canals and dams, hydroelectric plants and repetitive ditches. They did the unthinkable, the unimaginable: they bled the river dry. Now it does not even reach the Aral Sea. 

Oh, but that's not the half of it. Cotton is one of the thirstiest crops, and all mono-crops are prone to disease and infestation. Cotton naturally is particularly weedy. The haemorrhaging river leached salt that should have gone to the sea into the earth. The water came on and off the field up to 15 times in its course and sucked more salt to the surface, salinating the water table. Now a crystal layer sits on the exhausted earth and the tea tastes like a practical joke (oddly, it improves the coffee). Here, the drinking water is three or four times more saline than is considered healthy or palatable. To salt the land is a biblical horror, the final murderous curse of a place. Kara-Kalpakstan has become the largest cruet set in the world. Ah, but we are not finished: terrified managers facing falling yields sprayed tonnes of phosphates, nitrogen and, worst, DDT indiscriminately over the fields, and it's still all here, blowing in the wind. 

Step out onto the wide, grim, grey streets of Nukus, and in one slow pan you can see all you will ever need to know about communism. It is not so much that this place of hateful, cheap Soviet architecture fills the soul with gloom: it's that it sucks everything remotely beautiful or sensitive from the soul, leaving a vacuum of low-grade depression and the tinnitus of despair.
Seventy years of communism, all that hardship, terror, death. All that effort and hope and promises, the forced migrations, the cruelty, exhaustion, misery and rationing, the starvation and privation, the mechanical, imperative certainty of it all, ended up with this baking, grim bleakness. 

A few bronchitic, gaseous Ladas career along its broadly potted and rotted roads, every one a taxi. An old woman squats beside an upturned box, selling individual cigarettes, sunflower seeds and sluggish, dusty cola. She is the summit of independent Uzbek private enterprise. A man in a traditional skullcap pulls a reluctant goat on a rope. The goat bleats piteously - it knows this is not a good day. Soviet-style posters of happy storm troopers and peasant girls fondling potent sheaves fade and curl in the hot wind. Bits of folk-painted hardboard clap against iron and cement like early drafts for BA tail fins. This is a bad place, a sick place. The damage to the land is as nothing compared with the damage to these people.

Here is a brief and incomplete list of what the Kara-Kalpaks can expect in return for their cheap cotton and blasted land: bronchial asthma, allergic rhinitis, infantile cerebral palsy, chronic lung disease, kidney disease, endocrine disease, urogenital disease, diseases of the nervous system - all of them way, way beyond what would be considered acceptable in a normal, moderately developed world - and chronic anaemia. Even before they're born, Kara-Kalpaks are cursed by their habitat: 97% of pregnant women are anaemic, 30% of births may have defects, 1 in 10 babies may already be dead. These figures, as with all statistics in this piece, are educated, conservative guesses by outside agencies. The Uzbeks don't make a habit of washing their salty linen in public or letting their citizens know what's sitting at the end of their bed. But there are special wards just for birth defects here that no outsider has ever seen, the consequence of DDT and salt and malnutrition - thin bread and tea is the daily diet of most Kara-Kalpaks. What makes all this more ironic is that these exhausted women were the original Amazons, the warrior caste Alexander supposedly would not fight. If a child makes it past birth and the 30% infant mortality rate, then it had better pack its experiences and fun tight, because life expectancy is probably only 38 choked, grim years. 

The microscope I'm looking through is a gift from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). Through the mist of blue, stained lung gunk on the slide swims a bright red spot. That's it. Yes, that's definitely it. The red spot that marks your card for life: tuberculosis. TB is the number one top-of-the-pops killer in Kara-Kalpakstan. New cases in Nukus come in at a hacking 167.9 per 100,000 of the population (50 is considered an epidemic elsewhere). The microscope is the only piece of equipment in Nukus's TB hospital that couldn't have been made by a carpenter or farrier. This rambling institution, like the hotel, is only a hospital because someone says it is. There is no equipment, nothing that plugs in, just iron beds and broken tables and Cyrillic posters warning against Aids, which hasn't got here yet. The distempered walls flake and sag.

There's an overwhelming smell of sick, hot sewage. A truck pumps out the open latrines. Most patients sit outside in the baking dust, catching what passes for fresh air. The hot wind gusts with thick, poisonous lungs. The stoic sick hawk and spit. Spitting is a national sport. When I suggested, all things considered, they might be asked to stop, I'm told it's delicate, it's a cultural thing. Yeah, and Genghis Khan thought kicking people to death in sacks was a cultural thing. TB is very, very infectious. We walk around wearing paper Donald Duck masks. 

As ever, the children's ward is the most depressing: little girls wheezing on beds, watching the motes dance in the sun; the hospital cannot even feed them properly - a little yogurt if they are lucky; mothers in bright headscarves hover in corners, desperately grateful for even this, not wanting to draw attention or make a fuss; infants as young as nine months are brought in with TB. In children, it's likely not just to be pulmonary: it affects the other organs, the bone, the spine, as meningitis. 

A small lad tags along with us, pretty, pallid, central Asian features with a mop of black hair. Whenever I look rough, he's there, sneaking with a tyke's smile and a slight squint. His name sounds like Gary. Gary's bright as a button, except he's not: he's got TB and the complications of pleurisy, and he's brain-damaged; and he's an orphan; he's seven. 

Today, by chance, is my son's seventh birthday. Thousands of miles from here, his healthy lungs are blowing out candles. I should be there but I'm not; I'm here with Gary, who puts his face close to mine and laughs - the first laugh I've heard in days, a tinkling, rippling noise, an echo from another place. I smile back but realise he can't see it, because I'm wearing this antiseptic muzzle to protect me from his breath. 

Being dealt TB, pleurisy, brain damage and a family of one in Nukus is about as low a hand as God can offer a seven-year-old. We walk on through the wards, the little hand fits into mine and breaks my heart. TB is not an illness like cancer or malaria or cholera. It's not the result of bad luck or bad drains or genes or insects. It's a consequence, an indicator of something else, something we've got loads of - money. More exactly, the absence of it. TB hitches a ride on the back of extreme poverty. Only the poor and malnourished, the weak, are susceptible. It's as if they read the instructions on the box the West comes in wrong, and went and got inconspicuous consumption. That it should have returned so violently and comprehensively in what was, until a decade ago, part of a superpower, is a symbol of how precipitous the collapse in central Asia has been. 

MSF is treating TB with some success, and for every patient, of course, that's a miracle. But in the general walk of life in Uzbekistan, it means little or nothing. MSF is here because someone should be here to show that someone out there noticed and cared. They can't tell how many of their failures have the terrifying new variant of drug-resistant TB. Oh, it's out there. Prisons have about 40% TB, one in five of those drug-resistant. The only laboratories that could do the tests are in the West. Incidentally, my local Chelsea & Westminster Hospital had a rare case last year: an immigrant who was kept in locked isolation. He escaped, and the health officer ordered a police search. Here it could be anyone: the waiter, the man who spits at your feet, the policeman who leans in the window to check your papers. The treatment for drug resistant TB costs £8,000, has side effects of kidney failure and blindness, lasts five months and then it's only 50-50, a toss-up. 

Don't stop reading yet. The best bit is still to come. We haven't got to Muynak yet, the destination of this piece, the real reason I came here. Someone said to me in passing, apropos of nothing, over lunch in the Ivy: "Hey, why don't you go to the worst place in the world?" The worst place in the world has an emphatic ring to it. 

We leave Nukus in an ancient Volga. The driver loves it. A fine car. A good car. It's a deathtrap heap: the safety belt is attached to the chassis with gaffer tape. On the outskirts of town, a bridge crosses the Oxus. The river is a brown, turgid worm as broad as a peaty salmon-spawn stream. "There are the old banks where it used to run," points the driver. Where? I look and can't see. And then, pulling back for focus, the width and depths of the once-upon-a-time river are revealed in the distance. It was huge, wider than the Nile - a dozen motorways across. Awesome, appalling. The road traces the crippled stream north, through the horizon-shoving flatness of semi-desert and large, vacant fields with a frosting of salt. We pass plunky, unstable three-wheeled tractors, sand-matted camels, men in traditional long coats and boots with galoshes riding dusty, ballet-toed donkeys, and patient families with small, plastic bundles waiting for lifts. Every tree in Uzbekistan is painted white. It's the literalism of communism. Someone once wrote an after-lunch memo, and the next day they started painting all the trees. We stop in a village to visit the hospital. The doctor in his white coat, boiled thin and translucent, and the tall chef's hat that medical folk wear here, stands in the dust. A cleaning woman is tearing a strip off him; the patients stare at him. For a moment, he looks at the ants and silently turns back to his barren, distempered office. His one medical assistant has just got TB. He hasn't been paid his pittance of a salary for seven months. The health ministry has fined his under-resourced hospital for not disposing of its rubbish properly. He hasn't got an incinerator, a tin can belches greasy sputum smoke. He drinks. All day, every day, hopelessly. 

When the Soviet Union finally collapsed with exhaustion and horror, the stans were the only constituent part that didn't want independence. They actually asked to stay - better the devil ...
Russia had to push them out like reluctant teenagers, so they waited till they had half a dozen Aeroflot planes on their provincial runways and declared independence and a national airline. Nothing else changed much - it just got smaller and meaner. Uzbekistan is still a one-party command economy. It recently came top of a business magazine's list of the world's most corrupt countries (when that was reprinted in the local press, Uzbekistan's name had miraculously vanished, that's how corrupt it is). Every cotton harvest, schools, universities and offices are emptied into the fields. Everyone must pick and sleep in freezing barns, beg food and drink salty ditchwater. It gets harder: every year the fields are scoured for every wisp of cotton. Yet the people don't yearn for democracy. Democracy is an indecipherable foreign language. Since before the birth of Christ, this swathe of earth has suffered under waves of light-cavalry dictators: Macedonians, Persians, Arabs, Scythians, Mongols, Russians. A word was invented for them: horde. 

This place is anti-democracy, the opposite of democracy. What people yearn for is a new, better, stronger megalomaniac. There are rumblings of infectious, fundamental Islam coming from out of the desert, and the government is keen to associate itself with the personality cult of Tamerlane, or Timur, as they call him, erecting hideous, über-realist statues, gaining strength by retrospective association. Timur was Uzbekistan's home-grown 10th-century monster, creator and desecrator of the biggest land-based empire ever seen. A man who made Stalin look Swiss. 

Muynak quivers out of the dust. It looks like solidifying dust, shimmering in the heat haze. It's a seaside town, a spa town, a summer holiday place with a promenade that's also a fishing port with a flotilla of big trawlers and cargo barges in a harbour. There's a huge fish cannery that's won international awards. You can tell instinctively it's a seaside town. It has that sense, that rather tatty, low-rise feeling; light and air, bracing. 

We walk up a dune to the edge of a beach and look out to sea. It's desert, as far as the eye can stretch - flat, scrub desert with shells. Muynak is now 100 kilometres from the water. It's as if you stood on Brighton pier and the sea started at Paris - truly unbelievable, shocking. In the distance, dust storms twist, a family walks across the sea bed, the father's angry: "Wolves," he shouts. Wolves took his cow in the night. His son carries its head in a congealing sack. Sea wolves, sea cow. Muynak is a town in shock. It feels the sea like an amputated limb. Still aches for it. Men sit and look out at the waves of sand and hear the surf. The Aral Sea, with its thick deposits of salt and chemicals, is now the biggest single collection of dust in the world. It's the equivalent of a friable, airborne, choking Holland. Every year, suffocating toxic clouds blow into town. Man-killer dust. And I forgot to mention, out there, just over the curl of the earth, is an island that, in the way of this country's negative absolutes, has the biggest chemical weapons plant in the world, that contains the largest dump of anthrax on the planet - abandoned, waiting for the wind. 

Of all the ills that have been dumped on Kara-Kalpakstan, it seems invidious, unnecessary, to mention unhappiness, but Muynak feels grief-stricken to the point of madness. The people move with a slow, pointless lethargy. All around, there are signs of psychotic, repetitive comfort: men sit rocking like caged bears, women with short reed brooms sweep their doorsteps maniacally for hours. I watch a man wash an ancient green van from sunrise to sunset, the corrosive dust falling as fast as he can wipe. Early one morning, I notice an old chap sitting on a bench staring at the absent coast, legs crossed, arms folded in his lap. At dusk, he's still there, hasn't moved a muscle. 

The town itself is worn out, all its constituent parts loose and sagging; hinges rasp, the edges of things are darkly rounded with abrasion. It's coming to the end, the factories and canneries slowly sink into the grit. The darkly empty fish fridges are slumped saunas in the heat. Steel hawsers and bits of black metal grow out of the rising earth like hardy plants or drowning hands. Even imagining the effort that once invigorated them is exhausting. Stunted cattle plod the street, cudding dust and mud, so scrawny that at first I wondered why they were all calves. Large, hard-boned dogs crack their skulls on the smoky rubbish wasteland on the edge of town, hanks of gory sheepskin lie in the turgid filth and multi-species dung. Only the children run and shriek and throw stones and wrestle like children everywhere, making balls out of rags. The three, parallel tarmac streets are their playground. The road is covered in chalk drawings: hopscotch and football pitches, pictograms of dolls and soldiers, houses, cars and ships. Ships they'll never sail in. It's a long, black wish-list letter to Father Christmas, the one dictator who never visited these parts. 

They're still here, the ships - huge ships, blackened and callused. They lie askew in their dry beds, at anchor for ever, their plates wrenched off to make defensive stockades for houses. Their ribs are like the bones of extinct animals; brave and boastful names peel off their hulls. I lie in the dunes and listen to them, the wind plays them like a sad band: hatches boom, metal keens for the lost sea. A hawk hunts the sparse grass where seagulls should call, runty cattle move silently in line astern. You can still hear it, the echo of the surf hissing on the hot shore. It is the strangest, most maudlin place I've ever been. There's something particularly awful about dead ships. All other discarded man-engineered metal is eyesore rubbish, but not ships. They retain a sense of what they were: a majesty, a memory of the lightness under their keels. Of all the things sailors dread, carry superstitious talismans against, weather and wave, snapped hawser and hidden shoal, none, even in his wildest dreams, imagined that the sea would leave him, would get up and steal away.

This town thought many things, worried and dreaded plenty, but it could not conceive that it would one day be abandoned to dust. On a dune overlooking the mirage of water is the Russian sailors' graveyard. The crosses made out of welded iron pipe have, in the Orthodox way, three crossbars. Unkempt and crooked, they look like the spars of tall ships ferrying the dead. All the Russians that could go have gone now, leaving the Kara-Kalpaks. But the old Russian harbour master is still here, living in a dark hovel of memories and smells with his babushka wife, a painting of Stalin and a map of remembrance with fathom markings that are thin air. He has his uniform and grows garrulous about the good days when there were 40,000 people here. Holiday-makers, work and play. "It took a day, a whole day, to sail across the Aral. We knew it .
was shrinking: we built canals out to it; we chased after the sea." And then, one day in 1986, all the fishing boats went out, cast their nets in a circle, and when they pulled them in, there was nothing. "We knew it was the end." 

A story like this, a story of such unremitting misery, ought to end with a candle of hope. There should be something to be done. Well, I'm sorry, there isn't. Plenty of better men with clipboards and white Land Cruisers have been here to put it back together again, but they've retreated, dumbfounded and defeated. The World Bank has just spent $40m on a feasibility study and come up with a big idea. The big idea is a wetland bird reserve. Thanks, that would do nicely. You can't cry over spilt water: it just adds more salt. The sea will never come back to Muynak. The river will never repair its banks to meet it. The people of Muynak have nothing to do and nowhere to go; surrounded by thousands of miles of dust, without money or health or expectations, they'll just wait to die. The children will stop drawing in the street, grow up and give up, and the town will give up with them. 

I said at the beginning that it was an ecological disaster, that's not right. That puts it at a remove, makes the Oxus and the Aral Sea a piece of cowboy exterior design, a cockup with fish and minerals. It's not that. It's a human disaster of titanic proportions. This hard earth of ours doesn't care if it's a sea or a desert, a river or a dune. It has no game plan, no aesthetic. Eagles will replace the gulls, and there are plenty of salt-loving succulents that see this as a golden opportunity. Rivers and seas come and go, there's just no space for people here. For them, for us.

In the hospital a young lad sits on the edge of his bed. He is frightened, his eyes are like saucers. His breath is as quick and shallow as a trapped bird's. He's right to be frightened. He's very sick. His bones incubate a mortal malevolence. His mother has pinned a little cloth triangle to his shirt. I ask what it is. "A protection against the evil eye, for good luck."It holds salt - cotton and salt. Boy, was she ever misinformed."

Gill seems to have been fairly right in his bleak assessment of the chances that the Aral Sea might recover, but efforts are being made and a tiny bit of progress has been made. This link leads to more information on that and includes a very striking set of satellite photographs that show the lake as it receded.